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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Drive them to Think! My Favorite STEM Challenges

One of the key elements of a PBL is to provide a driving question.  That driving question provides the open-ended challenge or problem that we want our children to work on.  Bottom line, the question should be open-ended, require collaboration, critical thinking and teach students new skills.  These building blocks of inquiry are why STEM education goes with problem-based learning like macaroni goes with cheese! 

Driving Questions
Driving questions can, among other things, challenge students to solve a problem, design a better way to do something, build something useful or educate others.  Build, design, create and make are all verbs that bring the element of engineering into your classroom.  Adding constraints to a problem (things that students may or may not use, size/weight limitations, safety rules, etc.) not only adds to the challenge but reflects the reality of every day problem solving.

One of my all-time favorite examples of constraints in problem solving is the square peg in a round hole problem that was given to the Engineers at NASA to help Apollo 13 astronauts.  It has all the makings of a great problem:  It’s real and has real constraints. I use this great  video clip from the movie to have students practice defining a problem and listing the constraints

My Favorite STEM Challenges
Here are some of my favorite STEM challenges that I have used with kids to cover a variety of content:
1.       Build a better ________________.  Your students come across design flaws every day.  Ask them to listen to the complaints of their peers or parents about something that “just doesn’t work right” and develop a solution to the problem.  It could be a machine (like a mousetrap), law (like immigration), toy, or whatever.  They should gather information about the product, propose a solution, build a prototype, and present it to the class.  Example:  I recently had to use an airline travel toothbrush for a week – it collapsed into two pieces every time I brushed. Surely someone can come up with a better design!
2.       Rube Goldberg Contraptions.  The best engineering programs in the world participate in Rube Goldberg challenges.  Share a few Rube Goldberg cartoons, a couple of great YouTube videos and challenge your students to design and build a Rube Goldberg contraption that can do any or all of the following:
a.       Uses both a chemical change and a physical change.
b.      Uses 4 different simple machines.
c.       Uses both a mixture and a solution.
d.      Uses 4 different energy transfers.
e.      There is a whole lot of physics and chemistry that can be learned here.  Video tape their demonstrations and explanations to share with parents and post them to share with the rest of the world.
3.       Build a solar cooker with recyclable materials.  Food is a great motivator!  (and S’mores demonstrate both chemical and physical changes -burnt marshmallow, melted chocolate, broken graham crackers).  Have students research, design and build a cooker that will melt the chocolate for your s’more.  (Just saw that they now sell flat square marshmallows just for s’mores in the microwave-build a better marshmallow?)
4.       Build a SCALE Model of a large object (NASA’s latest MMS satellite, the solar system, the continents) or a small object (a life size lego man, cell, the Jolly Green Giant’s cell phone) using tape on the floor or string outside.  Lots of math involved!
5.       Make a model with moving parts using just paper (research paper engineering), Legos or recyclables of any science concept:  life, water or nutrient cycles, mitosis, meiosis, laws of thermodynamics, etc.  
Build, design, create, make, are all words that are key to putting engineering in your STEM lesson and developing problem solving, collaboration, creativity and communication.   Put the learning in their hands!

What are your favorite engaging STEM Challenges?